Violence Will Not Cease Without Facing Our Fears of Death
Every time some American man shoots up a building full of people, I feel a deep sense of grief. No matter how many arguments I have heard from gun rights advocates, I’ve never been able to swallow the obsession with guns many men in the U.S. have. I’m aware that this is a major issue in many other nations as well. Especially in war torn and militarily dominated countries, armed groups of men terrorize people on a regular basis. But the Wild West, rugged American individualism creates the perfect storm of actual gun violence, as well as widespread fears of possible gun violence.
Over the past 30 years, the rise of the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups, coupled with a pervasive increase in conceal carry laws and doubling of gun ownership, has elevated the general public’s “perceived threat level.” Robert Hartman, author of the blog “Ending Patriarchy,” offers the following:
Globally, we are saturated with guns, tanks, missiles and bombs, and however we try to escape the violence, the news and entertainment industries brings us nose to nose with real, and dramatized, violence every day, marinating us in a skillet of conflict and violence, where conflict and violence have become normal. We have seen, also, how a focus on gun legislation sends gun sales rocketing skyward. Many gun owners are motivated to reinforce, or protect their supply of weapons and ammunition whenever they feel threatened. Suggestive of an addictive process, most addicts will go to any length to protect their supply; through you, over you, or around you. At any rate, by the time any useful legislation is put into effect, which isn’t likely, America will be armed to the teeth, rendering any such law a mockery.
He goes on to speak about how focusing on guns alone really doesn’t deal with the pervasive violence we face individually and collectively, and how the root issue is “about eliminating the need for guns in the hearts of those who would possess them.”
The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It’s not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. If we want to embody a non-violent way of being and acting in the world, we have to come to terms with life and death as unified. Inseparable. That living and dying are occurring in every moment, no matter what we choose to do or not do. On the whole, American’s don’t handle the death side well. When faced with any inkling of it, we’re prone to turn away, minimize, or deny it. The increasing, mostly male obsession with “self defense” and resorting to violent measures to carry out such defense, feels intimately tied to this issue. Men look around and see other men killing each other and they don’t want to be next. Never mind that 2/3rds of gun deaths in the U.S. annually are self inflicted, the fear of being mowed down by some other is widespread. It’s not the slow fading away from chronic illness or quick passing during an accident that haunts many of us. It’s the messy end by bullet.
Gun violence is just a symptom, though, of much deeper issues. Like patriarchy, for example, which seems to have at its core a certain hatred of life. You can see this not only in the oppression of those who bring new human lives into the world, women, but also through its active promoting of planetary destruction as a “necessary evil” to live “the good life.” We men, as such, have an extra duty to get reflective about why we’re so collectively prone to violence.
How much of our collective obsession with guns is a feeling that we are powerless in our lives? How much of it is a mistaken belief that in owning and using firearms, we might gain control of our lives? Why is it that it much easier to find men who are publicly, even politically passionate about guns rights than it is to find men who are as passionate about health care rights, just to give one example? And how much of this is driven by unexamined fears, including the fear to be a man who shows fear and vulnerability?
In fact, we can replace the word “gun” with “violence” in all of those questions. And really dig into why when faced with conflict and difficulties, we men are so easily driven to some violent measure, even if it’s only a verbal assault.
In the Facebook comments to yesterday’s introduction post about Turning Wheel’s month on non-violence, Mushim Patricia Ikeda wrote something really helpful in working with one of Buddha’s most basic of teachings.
“I personally have found it tremendously instructive that translator and Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal, in his excellent translation of The Dhammapada, says that the Pali word translated here as “love” actually means “non-hatred.” Fronsdal says in the notes that he does not think that the English word “love” is an accurate translation of the original text. Therefore, hatred only ceases by non-hatred, is a more accurate translation of this teaching.
When I think about not only gun violence, but violence in general, it so often boils down to self hatred and other hatred. Sometimes it’s mostly one or the other. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Failing to recognize our interdependence, and believing way too strongly in our individual “selves,” it’s easy to fall prey to hatred. The power hatred offers not only fills (for a time) the gap of lack we all experience, but it also provides a false sense of protection. One which manifests towards particular people or groups, but really is, at its core, a felt protection against death itself.
All of this and more is at play behind issues like pervasive gun ownership, state sanctioned warfare, terrorism, and the sport killing of animals. Which is why so many attempts to remedy and heal, either through legislation or some sort of programming, tend to fall painfully short. We battle each other out over the symptoms, forgetting that below those differences tends to be common fears.
In activist circles, I’ve noticed how often discussions on non-violence either aim too soft (riddled with incomplete notions of love and compassion), or get derailed by calls for self defense, as if the two are always mutually exclusive. I tend to think that even with the best of non-violent movements, you can’t eliminate every last ounce of violence. Individual cases of self defense using some level of violence might be necessary, for example. Which is different than “force” or “resistance.” Note that this well known list of 198 different methods of non-violent action from the 1970s doesn’t include all the “digital” forms that have developed over the past decade or so.
In the end, I’m convinced there’s no way to deal with violence, and develop cultures of non-violence, without facing life and death themselves. Without truly embracing the interdependent cycle, especially the death part of it. This is true for all of us, but as I wrote above, I think that many more men must dig in and do this work as deeply as possible. Because we are, by far, the most addicted to violence as a means of solving conflict. It’s incumbent upon us to wake up to that, and do the right thing.